The Fight for Recognition: India’s Unsung Sports and Heroes (Part 1)

Amiya Kumar, Undergraduate Batch of 2023 

Tricolour painted bodies, the blowing of conch shells and roaring chants are enough to show the fanaticism and fervour of Indian cricket fans. It’s only natural to find large billboards, front-page stories and several dining table discussions dominated by the ”Men in Blue” who have been given a  God-like status. The hullabaloo around cricket leads one to assume that India is a sports-loving country. But do Indians watch other sports with the same passion as they watch cricket? Is the national obsession with cricket a stumbling block to other sports?  

Indeed, cricket is an indispensable part of the nations sporting culture. However, India is slowly but surely turning into a vibrant hub for sports such as football, badminton, chess, Formula One, Wrestling and many more. The growing popularity of these games has led to an escalating interest in sponsorship by celebrities and private organisations. Inspired by the Indian Premier League (IPL), these advertisers have invested in leagues for sports such as kabaddi and football as well. The emergence of tournaments such as the Indian Super League and Pro Kabaddi League has not only led to revenue streams, but the development of sports infrastructure such as the setting up of new sporting arenas as well. Most importantly, this has brought about a sporting culture in the country with multiplicity at its core. India has undoubtedly succeeded in its attempt to be more than a single-sport nation.

Even though there has been a growth in the popularity of a plethora of sports, many non-mainstream games are still not getting the attention and appreciation they truly deserve. Starved of resources but not short of the desire to succeed, sportspeople in India desperately try to make a mark and continue to envision a bright future despite the challenges they face. Why not push the envelope that bit further across the table and help budding sports and sportspersons scale new heights?

It’s not a well known fact that India has national teams for Sepak Takraw, Wushu and Kurash. In fact, most people have very little knowledge about these sports altogether. But these sports and their teams are silently setting records, and the enormity of their achievements are neither reported by the media, nor cherished and celebrated by us citizens. India achieved its best medal haul by winning a massive total of 69 medals at the 2018 Asian Games. Our nation’s deft and diligent performance turned the Games into an occasion of jubilation and high spirits. While silver medalists, Dutee  Chand (Athletics) and P.V Sindhu (Badminton) graced the covers of popular women’s magazines, bronze medalists Roshibina Devi and Malaprabha Jadhav, and silver medalist Pincky Balhara’s emphatic wins in Wushu and Kurash respectively, didn’t even make the national news. The men’s Sepak Takraw team also created history by winning their first ever bronze medal after four attempts,  but this did not garner much media coverage either.  

But let’s take a step back here. What exactly are these sports and who are the ones putting their heart and soul on the line to win medals for our country?  

Wushu

Wushu is a contemporary Chinese martial art where practitioners blend flexibility with strength,  speed with skilled technique, and fierce intent with effortless execution. Indians have won various accolades in this largely unknown sport. National champion Praveen Kumar, not only secured a silver at the 2016 Commonwealth games but also became India’s first ever Wushu World Champion. Ace player, Yumnam Sanathoi Devi made it a habit to win medals at the World Championships and went on to achieve the prestigious Arjuna Award. Indians have triumphed against chief rivals and attained huge respect in the Wushu World; however, their victories are not felicitated the way boxers and wrestlers are.  

Yumnam Sanathoi Devi receives the prestigious Arjuna Award from former President of India, Pranab Mukherjee.

Kurash

Similarly, Kurash is one of the oldest forms of wrestling in practice. The aim of the game is to throw the opponent off their feet. What makes the sport unique from other forms of wrestling are the rules that prohibit any actions on the floor, and groundwork. Players use throws and leg sweeps, which make the sport safe to practice. The Kurash players earned laurels against all odds. Since the Kurash Association of India isn’t recognised by the Sports Ministry, ace player Pincky Balhara couldn’t afford to buy a kit. The residents of her village pooled in Rs. 1.75 lakhs to ensure she could attend the training camp for the Asian Games, where she emerged victorious. The lack of funds deterred Malaprabha Jadhav from buying a kit too. Like Pincky, she didn’t back down and bagged a medal at the Asian Games and was subsquently a recipient of the Ekalavya Award from the Karnataka government.  These are two individuals who should be looked up as figures of aspiration, as role models for children across the country. But sadly, only a handful of us even know they exist!  

India’s Kurash aces, Pincky Balhara and Malaprabha Jadhav pose with the medals they won in the 2018 Asian Games.

Sepak Takraw

Sepak Takraw, commonly known as kick volleyball, is another such sport that faces immense difficulties despite the Sepak Takraw Federation’s efforts to spread awareness about the sport. Players use their feet, chest, knees and head to hit the ball over the net in the opponent’s court to score a point. Interestingly, Sepak Takraw gained traction in 1982 amongst some sports enthusiasts in Nagpur, before the famous against-the-odds victory by the men’s cricket team at the 83’ Prudential Cup led to a wider acceptance and acknowledgment of cricket. While the cricket team emerged victorious, the Indian Sepak Takraw contingent could not record equally significant triumphs at the time. Their defeats made it difficult for them to make progress and the sport did not see any surge in popularity for almost 40 years. Only after the team claimed its maiden bronze in the Asian Games in 2018, did the sport pick up steam amongst Indian fans. The team’s promising performance is indicative of a bright future and has opened up various avenues, including the opportunity to participate in the 2024 Olympics.  

Two players fight for the ball in a heated game of Sepak Takraw.

The Way Forward

In every gully in our nation, young children dream of becoming the next Tendulkar or Dhoni when they pick up a bat. It is unavailing to expect these children to aspire to be the next Yumnam Sanathoi Devi or Pincky Balhara. This is not only because Dhoni’s six to win the 2011 World Cup remains evergreen in their memory, but also due to the very fact that they are unaware of Pincky and Yumnam’s victories on the international stage. Integrating unconventional sports in schools and colleges, reforming administration and infrastructure and media coverage will help bring to light the victories of our unsung sporting heroes and inspire passion amongst the people. Why limit “ek saath wali baat” only to the IPL? Kyunki ab “har” khel bolega! 

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